By Kevin Gillikin @KevinGillikin And The Skipper
This is the first in a four-part series highlighting the NFL's up-trending and down-trending teams heading into the 2013 season
With the NFL pre-season upon us, I thought it appropriate to open a discussion on the NFL's top up-trending and down-trending teams heading into the 2013 season.
After hundreds of hours of watching game film, analyzing the draft and watching free-agent movements as well as the injury and waiver wires, I pretty much pulled this list out of my butt, a la Brandon Moore. But I hope it's a good launching point for discussion!
First, I can't stress enough just how thoroughly I think the NFC is going to dominate the AFC this year.
In my reading of things, the Broncos are the best team in football (no surprise there). But going down the list, before you get to my second-best AFC team (Houston), there are as many as eight superior NFC teams: Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay, Atlanta, the New York Giants and possibly even Washington, New Orleans and St. Louis (although those last three are admittedly a stretch).
In this series, I'm going to go through the Top 4 up-trending and down-trending in each conference, but as you read the lists, keep the general "tide" in mind -- the NFC as a conference is improving while the AFC, um, regroups.
Today's feature covers the down-trending teams from this year's Junior Varsity Conference. Even if my picks are not 100% on target (and I think they are), the poetic justice for Broncos' fans is so thick, I just couldn't resist these four losers-to-be.
AFC Down-Trending Teams
#1 - New England Patriots Bronco fans and all other non-Patriots' fans, I'd like you to close your eyes for a moment, arms extended upward, palms up, head back and take a deep, deep breath. Now exhale slowly and listen to what I'm about to say:
The Patriot Dynasty is dead. Done. Yesterday's news. Been on life-support for several years and Aaron Hernandez -- how do I say this tactfully? -- didn't help. The Patsies are no threat to make the Super Bowl and not that much of a threat to make the playoffs in my maybe-less-than-humble opinion.
Now if that's not spiritually cleansing, I'm not sure what is.
And the best part is, I think it's legit. Hoodie sold his soul to the Devil and now it's time to pay up. NFL dynasties have a shelf life. Eventually, they die. It happened to the Lombardi dynasty, happened to Bill Walsh, happened to Mike Shanahan, now it's happening to Bill Belichik, much to the delight of, well, pretty much everybody.
The Pats have not put forth a stellar defense since their last Super Bowl win in 2005. And yes, they will still throw out an elite offensive line and arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history. But to paraphase Tom Brady's wife Gisele, "Who's Tom going to throw to? Himself?"
In my memory, I can't remember a team being more thoroughly decimated at a position group than this year's Patriots: Hernandez, gone. Gronkowski, a physical mess. Lloyd, gone. Welker, gone (bwahaha!). Branch, gone. Woodhead, gone. All replaced by Danny Amendola?
Oh, and lest we forget, Tom Brady took a pay cut to keep Wes Welker. Yeah, I'll bet that helped motivate those off-season workouts!
Sure, LaGarrette Blount and Leon Washington will add to the Patriots' above average rushing attack from 2012, but that's about the only bright side to their offseason.
And yes, I know, I know: Bill Belichik and his resident toadie Josh McDaniels can win -- often -- with smoke and mirrors. And yes, Tom Brady could probably make me look like a good wide receiver. But this New England team is just flat-out devoid of talent, especially at the skill positions on offense. Personally, I think it's part of McDaniel's Divine punishment for wrecking the Broncos for two years: Try innovating on offense with a Hall of Fame quarterback and nobody to throw to.
Good luck with that, Josh!
Prediction: 7-9, second place in the AFC East.
#2 - Baltimore Ravens If I had to venture a guess regarding NFL executives' worst football-related nightmares, I would think they might go something like this:
"So, in my dream, we win the Super Bowl. Confetti everywhere, a big parade and gorgeous women looking at me with admiration. Wonderful dream.
And then I realize that my team really wasn't that good to begin with and got hot late. And then I realize that, not only am I losing the heart-and-soul of my defense this off-season, but we won that Super Bowl with an overrated, slightly-above-average quarterback. In a contract year. And my fan base thinks he's the second coming of Johnny Unitas.
Suddenly, I find myself in a huge, dark room. On my left is the quarterback's agent, pushing in my face a long-term contract with hundreds of zeroes. On my right are 10,000 fans with pitchforks, torches, and scowls on their faces. I look back to my left, and there are the rest of my veterans, ready to bolt if I sign my quarterback."
End of nightmare. Folks, welcome to Ozzie Newsome's world.
In choosing Door #1 and granting Joe Flacco a $120M, 6-year, back-loaded contract, Newsome has probably saved his own neck and put his fan base at ease, but he's decimated his talent base in the short run and his salary cap over the long run.
In today's NFL, you just can't lose the likes of Ray Lewis, Dannelle Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Matt Birk, Rollando McClain, Anquan Boldin and now Dennis Pita (injured and out for the season) and think you can compete.
Ravens' fans can take heart that things won't get that bad. Ozzie Newsome truly is one of the best GM's in the business. He's a fantastic talent evaluator and good with the draft and as he works to rebuild, it will be on a solid foundation of young talent.
The Ravens did pick up the fax man, Elvis Dumervil, and cornerback Michael Huff but had no other significant signings besides their huge contract given to Flacco. With a team that lost most of its starting defense and some major offensive pieces, it's hard to believe this team will win more than eight games.
But where the Patriots are looking for a future of longish-term mediocrity, 2013 will be more like a bump in the road for Baltimore. They'll be back.
Prediction: 8-8, tie for second place in the AFC North.
#3 - New York Jets The Jets have become the NFL's version of Reality TV. I have this idea for the NFL where they put cameras in the locker room (outside the showers, ladies!), set up an interviewer and stationary camera, ala The Office, and create a Reality show called "As the Butt Fumbles". Here's the intro, courtesy of CBS.
It's not uncommon for teams to have quarterback controversies. The Jets have something more akin to a quarterback short bus. Sanchez? No. Geno Smith? Really? Here's a question for Broncos' fans: Would you trade Brock Osweiller for either of these guys? I wouldn't. I'd give Smith a brief thought and then pass.
There's just something about the bright lights of New York that does strange things to people. Your NFL team underachieves and goes into meltdown mode at the end of the season? Players quit on their coach? I've got it! Let's get rid of the backup quarterback and see if that fixes things.
It's hard to believe that this team made it to the AFC Championship game just three short seasons ago, because they've become a sort of a caricature of themselves.
The Jets lost one of their biggest weapons this season when Darrel Revis left. They were surprisingly one of the better pass defenses in the league last year (#3) and Revis was a big part before he got hurt. But now he's gone, leaving Antonio Cromartie as the number one cornerback.
They cut Bart Scott among other defensive standouts and there really is no reason to believe their defense won't be well below average. They signed CB Dee Milliner as a rookie and hope he can be their next Revis but I know that I, for one, am not feeling it.
On offense, they added (now-injured) Chris Ivory at running back, Braylon Edwards at receiver and a few offensive linemen but for all their offensive struggles last year I don't see enough of an improvement to compete week after week. The often-injured Santonio Holmes is their number one wide receiver and I honestly don't see their offense scoring more than 10 points a game with Sanchez at quarterback.
They did draft Geno Smith to be the future quarterback but no one is sure exactly what "future" means. When Sanchez goes into a funk, the "future" is never more than a Pick Six away.
The Jets have arguably the worst locker room atmosphere in the NFL, a losing mentality and an oaf of a coach. I can see them winning maybe 4 or 5 games.
Popeye and Bluto were mortal enemies, but Popeye never wanted Bluto actually, you know, dead. If nothing else, it would get the show cancelled. And there was something deeply spiritual about their never-ending battle.
Of course, the "prize" was Olive Oyl, so maybe this isn't a good analogy.
Anyway, say what you want about the late Al Davis, but the guy had a plan. It may not have been a very good plan (bring in reprobates and Broncos' castoffs, run up the middle, throw deep, and "Just Win, Baby"), but at least it was a plan.
This current regime looks clueless to me. No plan. No direction. Oh, they'll still raid the Broncos (see Dennis Allen as head coach), but beyond that, they seem to be just wandering, zombie-like, to nowhere in particular. I don't know, maybe it's what Darth Raider and their fans want -- brrrrraaiiiiiinnnnnns -- but this franchise is at risk of a double-whammy of having absolutely no artistic personae (like the Titans, Bills and Buccaneers) and a crappy on-field product to go with it.
Hey, the Jets might be atrocious, but at least they're entertaining. The Raiders are just painful to watch.
Matt Flynn starts at QB with future draft picks sent to Seattle for him (I'm fairly sure the Raiders have traded away the next ten years of first round picks). I guess he's an upgrade over the disgraced Carson Palmer, but come on -- Flynn was beaten out in Seattle by rookie Russel Wilson and has a reputation built on ONE big game he had while playing in Green Bay.
They picked up Josh Cribbs but he's really only ever been used as a returner and Ford is already their primary return guy. They are still looking for a starting TE and they should have one of the worst offenses in the league.
On defense, they've added an old fart safety in Charles Woodson and a rookie CB DJ Hayden who was nearly killed when he had heart issues after a huge hit in college.
The Raider drafts never pan out and there's little reason to think this team will be any better than they have been in the last ten years. They are also in an AFC West division that will be likely improved overall and should sweep Oakland in the six games they'll play. Come to think of it, the AFC West is the only division in the AFC that has a fighter's chance of being better than last year.
Prediction: 0-16, -17.3 point differential. Before the end of the season, the other 31 team owners will sign a sympathy card -- Sorry for your loss[es] -- pass the hat and offer the Raiders a compensatory first-round pick every season until they hit .500 again.
Honorable mention Houston Texans (solid team, but simply not the same since Matthew Stafford torched their defense on Thanksgiving Day last year).
Pittsburgh Steelers (old, decaying, hanging onto the past and not really committed to rebuilding yet).
Buffalo Bills (whatever).
Next: AFC Up-Trending teams. I'm shooting for four. Honestly, it may be tough to find four.